Antimatter trapped at CERN

The Daily Telegraph has a story today with the headline

Antimatter captured by CERN scientists in dramatic physics breakthrough

accompanied by the picture below and the usual razzmatrazz of antimatter-powered spaceships, antimatter bombs, Angels and Demons etc.

I first came across this strange story on Facebook early this morning and the Daily Telegraph headline iis equally puzzling. As every schoolgirl knows, antimatter is an exotic form of matter made up of particles of opposite electric charge to that of everyday matter (see post on this here). What is puzzling about the story is that physicists have been producing antiparticles in high-energy accelerator experiments since the 1950s and have been able to manufacture whole atoms of antimatter for over a decade now. (Atoms of anti-hydrogen are manufactured in accelerators by allowing anti-protons to capture anti-electons, see here).

About a third of the way down the article in the Telegraph, one discovers the real nature of the breakthrough –  the ALPHA experiment at CERN have reported that they have managed to produce atoms of anti-hydrogen that are relatively longlived (see paper in Nature here). Up to now anti-atoms were extremely shortlived because antimatter is instantly annihilated when it encounters matter (e.g. the container walls). What the Alpha group has done is to trap anti-hydrogen atoms in complex magnetic fields for up to a tenth of a second. Hence the word ‘capture‘ in media headlines, I guess.  It is certainly an important breakthrough as it should enable a detailed study of subtle differences between atoms of hydrogen and anti-hydrogen. (For example, in what way does the spectrum of anti-hydrogen differ from that of ordinary hydrogen?)

The Alpha experiment – don’t try this at home

This is an important area of study because any differences in the spectrum of anti-hydrogen vs ordinary hydrogen could shed light on one of the greatest mysteries of particle physics and cosmology; why is our universe made of matter? What subtle imbalance occurred in the early universe that led to the survival of ordinary matter over antimatter? From the point of view of particle physics, it wll be very interesting to see if CPT symmetry is conserved in the case of anti-hydrogen: if not this has implications for the standard model of particle physics.

Almost everybody in the particle physics universe is blogging on this breakthrough today so I won’t comment further – there is an excellent summary of the experiment on the Symmetry Breaking blog


Kate McAlpine (author of the great LHC rap) has an excellent article on the above in this week’s edition of New Scientist . It’s well worth a look, especially her explanation of how neutral anti-atoms can be trapped in a magnetic field.

Update II

When the film Angels and Demons came out, Dan Brown was widely criticized for suggesting that enough antimatter could be trapped long enough to form a stable bomb (see post and review of A&D here). Looks like Brown wasn’t quite so far off the mark after all – at least about entrapment, if not about a feasible amount of antimatter for a bomb. My guess is that he had some serious discussions with the CERN group, just as he claimed at the time..

Not quite so daft


Filed under CERN, Cosmology (general), Particle physics

6 responses to “Antimatter trapped at CERN

  1. cormac

    Thanks John – though I’m not sure what you mean by ‘even’, I’ve been known to write for Ihe Irish Times myself!
    That said, I notice the article fails to emphasize that we have been creating antimatter for over a decade – a bit misleading, like so many of the newspaper articles on the subject today

  2. John

    Dr. O’Raifeartaigh,
    You picked up my cynicism when i used the word “EVEN the Irish times”. Yes, i was surprised the story ended up in an Irish newspaper. I’m sure you will agree with me to some extent that Irish media are desperately lacking in any high profile quality science journalists. Science just goes on the back burner in Ireland. Ireland does have a lot of good science going on, but little of it gets reported in the media.

    I do believe that the majority of Irish people just don’t care about science, they lack a basic understanding. Its like you mentioned in a previous climate blog post, Irish people will even allow false information to be presented as fact in the media (The climate change TV show you talked about).

    Ireland needs high profile science journalists to report on Irish science.


  3. cormac

    I think Dick Ahlstrom does a good job – after all not many newspapers of record have a full weekly page on science.
    That said, I notice the Science Today page of the Irish Times has recently been moved to a spot behind the op-ed page, virtually guaranteeing that almost no-one outside of the science community will read you have a point

  4. John

    Yes, Dick Ahlstrom is good for science.

    John Kennedy runs and they produce a technology supplement for the Irish independent. Its mainly aimed at Tech, computing and business type stuff but they do occasionally have science articles. But i get fed-up hearing about computers and iPhones, they don’t have enough raw science to interest me.

    The English daily mail have very good science articles, but i don’t buy the Irish version of the daily mail so i don’t know if the science articles are replicated there, they might be.

    As Carl Sagan once said, you can be sure every newspaper has an astrology page with full write-ups about your star sign. Sad really.



    Now we hope for a matter and antimatter collission in LHC -GENEVA to prove theories of DURGADAS DATTA.